2020 has been an interesting year to say the very least. Even though the news has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, the aftermath of Brexit, and more recently, the US election, free speech has managed to keep its place in public discourse.
This year, we’ve seen Toby Young’s free speech union rise to prominence, as well as the Met police questioning conservative commentator Darren Grimes following his controversial interview with historian David Starkey.
It’s hard to observe these two events and come to a conclusion other than the possibility that free speech may be in danger. So please forgive me for being rather scared about the implications of the new BBC guidelines, set out by director-general Tim Davie.
Since his re-appointment in September, Davie has put down rules and regulations for the corporation. Employees will not be allowed to ‘express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or controversial subjects’ and are being reminded that ‘(their) personal brand on social media is always secondary to (their) responsibility to the BBC’. Employees are being told to ‘avoid virtue-signalling’ (not vague at all, right?) and might be sacked if they breach the guidelines. Even emojis are being policed.
Now, if the BBC wants to continue with its current model, it absolutely should be impartial when reporting the news. I get that. But these tougher guidelines won’t just apply to “staff in news and current affairs”, but also to “a small number of presenters who have a significant public profile”.
Gary Lineker has 7.7 million followers on Twitter, and so presumably falls under the ‘significant public profile’ category. His contributions to the BBC don’t go any further than covering sports. It, therefore, baffles me that he shouldn’t be allowed to express his views on matters he’s passionate about. Why should he be restricted in talking about refugees seeking asylum in the UK? Why should he be restricted in talking about Boris Johnson or Donald Trump? In what way will this affect the BBC’s ability to remain unbiased in presenting the news?
This to me is a brazen inhibition on his most basic and fundamental human right (which will most likely affect other employees such as Zoe Ball and Graham Norton), and he shouldn’t be forced to seek employment elsewhere to keep his freedom of expression.
The situation is simple. A worker is potentially in danger of losing their job. And as a proud Labour Party member, these situations make me grateful that unions exist. So why hasn’t the free speech union said anything? This may well be because, as far as I’m aware, Lineker isn’t a member. But this isn’t just about him. Many others will have their free speech restricted. A titan such as the BBC needs to be called out for their guidelines, and if the free speech union won’t do it, then who will?
But there is another danger here.
With the online debate becoming more and more toxic, and the divide between right and left becoming wider and wider, we risk the possibility of blurring the line between partiality and impartiality. We’ve now reached the point where stating a fact can be seen as having a bias.
Earlier this year, Emily Maitlis delivered a powerful monologue regarding Dominic Cummings and his journey to County Durham. Every sentence in her statement was a fact, yet she was still accused of having a bias from right-wing commentators such as Ross Clark, André Walker and many others.
This is a slippery slope that we need to get off of before it’s too late. If a BBC employee gets disciplined for merely stating a demonstrable fact, then we can bury freedom of speech right next to irony, in a graveyard where democracy may soon end up.
I have always been a big supporter of the BBC, and I would be very sorry to see it go, but these guidelines won’t win round its opponents, and may well cause many of its fans to leave for another network.
The BBC must seriously reconsider its new guidelines, otherwise, I give it five more years.